How Heat Can Stabilize The Autonomic Nervous System

Traumatic life events happen for nearly every human alive, however, some devastate beyond a healthy range of recovery for a variety of reasons. Many of life’s challenges, brutalities, and losses are not preventable, and even how recovery occurs surrounding these incidents may be beyond the realm of immediate control. 

Many individuals are left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and live with the symptoms of this condition every day… And night! There are many therapeutic approaches to help heal PTSD, most of which are beyond the scope of this article. However, clinical research can demonstrate the positive healing effect that regular sauna bathing may have on symptoms of PTSD. 

A significant factor contributing to the expression of PTSD is an autonomic nervous system that is apparently permanently out of balance. This results in significant symptoms that can make everyday life difficult. 

This article will examine how regular sauna bathing may help reduce symptoms of PTSD by enhancing homeostasis of the autonomic nervous system.

PTSD And The Autonomic Nervous System: Why A Balanced Nervous System Is Critical

  • Improve quantity and quality of sleep
  • Minimize anxiety & panic attacks
  • Increase In Positive Thinking (less hypervigilance)
  • Healthier internal organ function
  • Positive cellular replication

A pillar of PTSD is an imbalance to the autonomic nervous system, a portion of recovery needs to include the redemption of homeostasis to this system.

Remember that when there is an immediate threat to life, the adaptive quality of the human body to summon all resources toward survival is critical and necessary. This is where the autonomic nervous system serves to assure survival of the human race.

The concern is that once the immediate threat has been resolved many individuals remain in hypervigilance, unable to return to a healthy equilibrium. In the long run, this deteriorates both physical as well as emotional health.

Understanding how sauna therapy can summon physiology out of hypervigilance back into balance may be wildly valuable in any PTSD treatment protocol.

Neosauna Tip: The autonomic nervous system is composed of two primary branches, each of which determines the state of being of not only physiology, but also emotions and thought patterns. (1)

Parasympathetic dominance, also known as rest and digest, or states of relaxation occurs when the body and mind feel safe. In addition, sleep occurs easily, as does healing of the body in this state of being as energy is directed inward for healthy cellular replication and general rejuvenation. (1)

Sympathetic dominance, also known as fight or flight, is the other branch of the autonomic nervous system. The body is transferred into this state of being when a threat is perceived. It is difficult to sleep or relax when the body is in states of sympathetic dominance. When individuals remain in states of hypervigilance for prolonged periods of time, eventually the health of the body is eroded. (1)

It is not uncommon for individuals who have experienced severe trauma to remain in hypervigilance. An important element of treatment of PTSD is the fostering of a balanced autonomic nervous system. 

The National Institute Of Health describes the relationship between PTSD and the autonomic nervous system in the following statement: 

“A hallmark of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is autonomic nervous system imbalance, characterized by a hypoactive parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and hyperactive sympathetic nervous system (SNS) . Indeed, PTSD diagnosis and symptom severity have been associated with higher baseline heart rate (HR)  and reduced heart-rate variability (HRV) , a non-invasive index of autonomic control of cardiac rhythm . This is concerning because elevated HR and attenuated HRV are not only indicators of poor cardiovascular health, they are also precursors, conveying heightened risk for arrhythmia (5) and artherosclerosis.” (2)

Unfortunately, remaining in states of stress response for prolonged periods of time can have catastrophic effects on the body. For individuals living with PTSD it is imperative to find a variety of tools to help relax the mind and body to harmonize the autonomic nervous system once again. 

While sauna bathing is not the only means to finding homeostasis of the autonomic nervous system, it is powerful and effective. 

How Does Sauna Bathing Impact The Autonomic Nervous System?

Sauna therapy can help relieve PTSD

For most people when they think of sauna bathing they associate the experience with relaxation, and this is valid. A study published by Science Direct, in August of 2019 revealed that after just one sauna session participants experience: “The study showed that a single sauna exposure leads to significant changes in cardiac autonomic nervous balance as indicated by modulation of heart rate variability.” (2)

Several significant reasons to use saunas to stabilize the autonomic nervous system include, but not limited to :

  • Pharmaceutical Free: All Natural
  • No Special Activity On The Part Of The Participant Is Necessary (such as breathing exercises, meditation etc…)

Often, but not always, individuals living with PTSD will be prescribed a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs such as antidepressants, sleeping pills, mood stabilizers, and the list goes on. While sometimes this form of intervention is necessary, finding a natural means to stabilize the autonomic nervous system can be crucial for health and ultimate healing. 

Through heat, and in the case of infrared sauna bathing light, the nervous system is gently coaxed back into states of relaxation without the use of pharmaceuticals. Not only is this objective satisfied, also sauna bathing acts as a powerful means of detoxification from any pharmaceuticals that have been taken to calm the nervous system, as well as other toxins from lactic acid, cortisol, and other substance overloads from spending too much time in stress response. 

Panic attacks are not uncommon for individuals living with PTSD. Often individuals will be encouraged to slow breathing down, and engage in other mindfulness activities. While this is ultimately helpful, often when anxiety and hypervigilance are highly activated it can be difficult to slow breathing down. Sauna bathing does not demand anything of the participant. (3)

The mere act of being inside the cabin structure with the heat will invite the body out of states of fight or flight and back into states of calm and rest. It is only in states of relaxation that the body can begin the natural healing process. 

Sauna bathing is not the only option to treat PTSD, it is a powerful means to aid in the recovery of the autonomic nervous system back into states of balance. 

According to a publication by the Medical Press: 

“Regular sauna bathing stabilizes the autonomic nervous system, reduces blood pressure, inflammation, oxidative stress, circulation of bad cholesterol, arterial stiffness, and vascular resistance.” (4)

For many individuals living with PTSD inflammation can be a significant issue as well, sauna therapy has been found to also assist in the reduction of inflammation. 

PTSD And Sauna Bathing: A Natural And Effective Treatment Therapy To Alleviate Some Symptoms

A couple enjoying life after PTSD and sauna therapy

It may be impossible to entirely avoid traumas from occurring.  It is, however, possible to respond with treatment that is both integrative and holistic to avoid long term damaging symptoms of  PTSD.

There are a plethora of therapies available in treating PTSD, typically a combination of methods will prove most effective. Any treatment plan ought to include a robust balancing of the autonomic nervous system to improve sleep, reduce hypervigilance and anxiety, as well as improve the overall health of the heart. 

Sauna bathing, in all its forms, including infrared sauna bathing, is a powerful and effective means of drawing the autonomic nervous system back into states of balance for individuals living with PTSD. 

The human experience will likely never be devoid of heartbreak, loss, and tragedy.  How we choose to respond to these challenging events, ultimately is what makes the difference. Sauna bathing will not make all problems vanquish, however it is a powerful tool in the balancing of the autonomic nervous system. 

When individuals are able to exit out of states of fight or flight easily, healthy sleep patterns return, and typically anxiety is calmed. Consider incorporating sauna bathing into your PTSD treatment protocol to assist the recovery of the physical and emotional body.

***Remember to always consult your medical practitioner before beginning sauna protocol. 

For more information and immediate assistance please contact the PTSD Foundation Of America

Sources:

  1. https://connects.catalyst.harvard.edu/Profiles/display/Concept/Autonomic%20Nervous%20System
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003742/
  3. https://nrd.gov/resource/detail/21077949/PTSD+Foundation+Of+America
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229919301943
  5. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-08-frequent-sauna-health-benefits-literature.html